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Authors: Carola Dunn

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BOOK: Black Ship
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“… Double-crossing whoreson skunk …”

“Hey, take it easy. Me and the boys just figured …”

“… Had a deal …”

“… Spare a coupla crates …”

Concluding that he was not going to be arrested in the immediate future, Patrick stopped cowering and made himself as comfortable as possible on his odiferous bed. He was half-asleep again by the time the captain returned with another man.

“Greedy bastard’s made us run late,” the captain growled. He resumed his post at the wheel and the purr of the engines swelled. “It’ll be daylight before we’re in signalling distance.”

“What we need’s one of those radio transmitters,” said the other in the dogmatic tone of one who was repeating oft-unheeded advice.

“That’s what the limey’s here for.” Without turning his head, the captain asked, “You awake, son?”

“Yes, sir.” Patrick scrambled to his feet.

“You’re here to set up radio codes, that right?”

“That’s right, sir. We’ve heard your Coast Guard is intercepting uncoded messages from ship to shore, so my father hired a top-notch cryptographer—a chap who worked for the War Office during the War—to set up a code for us. It’s not hard to use, and it can be changed at irregular, prearranged intervals, so they won’t get a chance to work it out. I’m going to set it up with Mr…. uh …” He recalled the warning against naming names. “With our buyer’s agent.”

“What did I say, skipper? These days, you gotta have radio.”

The captain gave an unenthusiastic grunt. When nothing more was forthcoming, the seaman went out and Patrick subsided on his pile of sacks again.

When next he roused, day was breaking. A light mist swirled over the sea. The captain still stood at the wheel, steady as a rock. Feeling chilly, Patrick yawned and stretched. He was dying for a cuppa, but he knew one didn’t ask New Englanders for tea.

“Good morning, sir.”

The captain, now revealed as a tall, lean man with a long, seamed face fringed with grizzled whiskers, hooked a laconic thumb over his shoulder. “Bread and cheese in the locker.”

“Thanks. Will you have some?”

“Ayup.”

With the half loaf and hunk of cheese in the locker, Patrick found a thermos flask of coffee and a couple of battered tin mugs. Having acquired a seaman’s knife aboard the
Iphigenia
(for which he now felt a nostalgic affection), he cut a doorstep of bread and a slab of the cheese. The coffee smelled very strong. He poured a cup and carried the makeshift meal to the captain.

When Patrick tasted the coffee, he discovered the aroma disguised a healthy slug of whisky. It wasn’t the breakfast he’d have chosen, but it warmed him through. Evidently, the captain of the
Barleycorn
believed in his work, unlike the Boston Irishman, who, according to Patrick’s father, was a teetotaller.

An Irishman, a
Catholic
Irishman, who didn’t drink was oddity enough. A teetotaller who broke the law to import booze for his fellow citizens boggled the mind, Patrick mused, gnawing on his bread and cheese. Love of money was the root of all evil, they said. Not, of course, that he considered dealing in high-quality alcoholic beverages to be an evil.

A young seaman burst into the wheelhouse. “Skipper, Jed spotted a destroyer astern!”

Startled, Patrick choked on a crumb.

The captain swore a brief but pungent oath. “He’s sure?”

“Just a glimpse, but he’s using the spyglass.”

“Did they see us?”

“She ain’t hailed us. Nor shot at us … yet.”

“Which way’s she heading?”

“Dunno, skipper. He couldn’t tell.”

“This fog’s going to burn off soon as the sun rises. So much for the weather forecast! Tell the boys to hold on to their hats. We’ll run for it.”

By the time Patrick got over his choking fit, the heavy-laden
Barleycorn
was ploughing through the swells at her top speed. The mist turned to gold as the sun’s first rays touched it, and soon its wraithlike wisps dissipated.

The young seaman returned, bursting with excitement. “She’s turning, skipper. She’s spotted us for sure. A mile and a half astern, Jed says. D’you want us to chuck the stuff overboard?”

“Send a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of good liquor to Davy Jones’s locker? Not danged likely,” said the captain grimly. “We’ll give her a run for her money.”

FOUR

A smell
of paint still hovered in the hallways when Belinda came home for her half-term holiday. That the Fletchers had managed to move from St. John’s Wood by then was in no small part due to Lambert.

Though he still spent every weekday morning haunting the American embassy, an unhappy ghost who had lost his obol for Charon, he would then go to the Hampstead house to “ginger up” cleaners and workmen, as he put it. Daisy didn’t tell Alec that when she dropped in to see how things were going, Lambert was generally standing at a window with borrowed binoculars, watching the doings of the next-door neighbours.

Daisy wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but she was pretty sure he hadn’t seen it. He couldn’t have hidden his subsequent excitement from her.

Be that as it might, the refurbishment was completed in record time. The house was light and bright. Bel loved her new bedroom, three times the size of the one she had occupied since the twins’ arrival.

The very morning after she came home, Lambert returned
from the embassy with his passport and papers, and took his leave.

His gratitude for the Fletchers’ hospitality was so heartfelt that Daisy began to feel quite mean for having scoffed at him and resented his intrusion into their lives.

“You’ve been a great help,” she said. “I hope you’ll come back to say good-bye before you leave England.”

He cast a furtive look behind him and whispered, “You may see me around, Mrs. Fletcher. If you do, please pretend you don’t know me. Don’t speak to me, and don’t tell anyone. Except Mr. Fletcher, of course.”

She bit her lip to hold back a laugh. He was so keen to be a hero out of Anthony Hope’s romances, or John Buchan’s, or the American equivalent, and he just wasn’t cut out for the role. “I won’t,” she promised.

He stood on the threshold for a moment, scanning his surroundings before he ventured forth. As he went down the steps, Daisy saw him turn up his coat collar and pull down his hat.

She told Alec when he turned up in the middle of the afternoon and announced that he was taking three days off while Belinda was at home. To her surprise, her news made his dark brows lower in a frown.

“What’s the matter, darling? Aren’t you glad he’s gone at last?”

“Naturally. I just hope he’s not going to cause any trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The Americans are pushing us to help them enforce their stupid law. It started last year with extending territorial waters from three to twelve miles. Well, the government approved that treaty for our own reasons, and a lot of grief it’s caused already. They’ve seized a number of British-registered ships, some actually outside the new limit, when they’ve caught them off-loading alcohol, or even just with alcohol aboard. Now they’re sending agents over here to investigate the shippers. The last thing we need is trigger-happy idiots like Lambert wandering about.”

“Customs took away his gun, remember?”

“Thank heaven for small mercies! Let’s forget about him, for the present at least. No doubt he’ll turn up again sooner or later, like a bad penny. Where’s Bel?”

“She went with Mrs. Gilpin and Bertha…. Don’t look blank, darling. Bertha’s our new nursery maid. They’ve taken the babies and Nana for a walk on the Heath. It’s such a beautiful day, let’s go to meet them.”

“Right-oh. Just let me get changed.”

A two-minute walk took them to the edge of the Heath, eight hundred acres of woodland and meadow practically on their doorstep. From their high position, on this clear October afternoon, they could see the glint of the sun’s slanting rays on the Crystal Palace, far off beyond St. Paul’s. At the foot of the hill, a large pond gleamed between leafless trees.

Quite a number of people were taking advantage of the weather: boys kicking balls, well-wrapped pensioners chatting on benches, dog walkers, pram pushers, and, combining the last two, a small group coming up the slope towards Daisy and Alec.

Nana was first to spot them. Off her lead, she came bounding up to them, tail gyrating wildly. Behind her, at a snail’s pace, came Belinda, bent double with Oliver clutching her forefingers and staggering along on his own two feet. Next was Bertha, a plump, toothy girl with a soft West Country voice, carrying Miranda. Keeping an eye on her charges, Nurse Gilpin brought up the rear with the empty pushchair, a newfangled contraption she had fought tooth and nail until it was made plain to her that Daisy’s brother-in-law,
Lord
John, had had it specially designed and built for the twins. Nurse Gilpin was a snob.

Belinda looked up to see where Nana had gone. Of course, Oliver promptly sat down. He opened his mouth to yell but stopped when Bel picked him up, the burden making her look
skinnier than ever. She had been a thin child as long as Daisy had known her, and since going back to boarding school after the summer hols, she seemed to have grown an inch without putting on an ounce. Daisy hoped she was getting enough to eat. She didn’t seem to have any trouble carrying the baby, though, and gave him up reluctantly to Daisy when they met.

Alec relieved the nursemaid of Miranda and sat her on his shoulders, wincing as she buried her little hands in his dark, springy hair.

“Hold on tight, Daddy. She doesn’t understand she mustn’t let go.”

“Da-da,” Miranda observed with satisfaction.

With a smug smile at Daisy, Alec said, “Da-da before Ma-ma.”

“It’s just babbling at this age, isn’t it, Mrs. Gilpin?”

“I’m sure I can’t say, madam. In the old days, I’d’ve said so, but what with all these modern notions, who can tell?” The nurse had reluctantly given in to Daisy’s “modern notions” about parents actually being allowed free access to their children, but she didn’t pretend to approve. Now and then, she managed to get in a dig on the subject.

An elderly man came down the hill towards them. He walked stiffly, with the aid of a stick, and was dressed in tweed knickerbockers, like a country squire out to view his estate. He had a pair of binoculars dangling on a cord around his neck and a pair of fat spaniels waddling at his heels. Nana rushed to meet the dogs.

“You’d better put her on the lead, Bel,” said Alec.

The man heard him. “It’s all right, they know one another. Nana, isn’t it? They met in the garden when your maid let her out one morning.” Pale, washed-out eyes scrutinized them from under bushy eyebrows. “You’ll be the new people at number six. My sister and I are at number ten. Bennett’s the name, two
t
’s. Settling in all right, eh?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Daisy. “I’m Mrs. Fletcher. My husband. Our daughter Belinda.”

“And who was the young fellow I saw leaving this morning with bag and baggage, eh?”

“A guest,” Alec said repressively.

“A guest, eh? We thought he might be a relative, the way he’s been popping in and out the last couple of weeks, before you moved in. Or a decorator. You’ve spent a fortune having the place done up nicely, I expect?”

“Nothing terribly exciting,” said Daisy. “We’ve kept it quite simple.”

“Haven’t you even bought new furniture? We haven’t seen a furniture van pull up, only Pickford’s moving van.”

“We’ve kept it simple,” Daisy repeated. Feeling Alec seething beside her—he was more accustomed to interrogating than to being interrogated—she went on: “I hope you’ll excuse us, Mr. Bennett. We must get on home before the little ones catch a chill.”

Mr. Bennett peered at the babies. “Twins, eh? Not identical, though!” he said disagreeably.

Oliver’s face crumpled, preparatory to a yell, but as the old man stumped off, he decided to blow a raspberry instead, a skill he had recently mastered.

“Why did he ask so many questions, Daddy?” Belinda whispered.

Alec grunted.

Daisy said diplomatically, “It’s natural to be interested when new people move in nearby.”

“Which doesn’t mean you have to answer any questions he may ask you, Bel,” said her father.

“Certainly not,” Daisy agreed. “But try not to be rude.”

“Like you, Mummy. You didn’t really tell him anything, but you were perfectly polite. I don’t expect I can do it so well.”

“Practice makes perfect,” said Alec with a grin.

“I expect he’s grumpy because he’s feeling rheumaticky,” Daisy said forgivingly.

As they reached the top of the hill, Alec started to swing Miranda down. She refused to let go of his hair.

“Bel, you’re quite wrong. She understands about hanging on. What she doesn’t understand is that Da-da doesn’t care for a damp collar.”

“Oh, Daddy!” Belinda giggled, and a muffled snort came from Bertha. “Bend down and I’ll make her let go. There you are. Mirrie, darling, I’m not carrying you wet. You’ll have to go back in the pushchair.”

Daisy deposited Oliver, too, who was beginning to smell less than fragrant. It was Mrs. Gilpin’s turn to look smug. “They should have gone on the pot half an hour ago,” she announced, “but Miss Belinda
would
walk on.” Stately as a dowager duchess, she sailed ahead with the pushchair, Bertha trotting at her side, receiving low-voiced instruction.

Belinda skipped along between Daisy and Alec, arms linked through theirs. “I’m glad I don’t have to change nappies,” she said.

“You’d better learn how, darling,” said Daisy. “I have the best of both worlds, playing with the twins as much as I want but not having to do the dirty work. When I was little, Nanny ruled supreme, and we hardly ever saw my parents. Of course,” she mused, “I’m not at all sure Mother ever had the least desire to challenge Nanny’s rule. But by the time you have children, who knows how the world will be?”

Bel wrinkled her nose. “All right, Mummy, I’ll ask Bertha to show me how. I’ll even do it myself. Practice makes perfect! I do like helping to give them baths, though. It’s such fun watching them splash.”

When they reached the house, the parlour maid met them with a folded note. Daisy opened it.

BOOK: Black Ship
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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